In the past year I’ve had some seriously powerful nostalgic moments. And I don’t mean those passing pangs that hit you when you’re looking at old photos, like ‘Remember My Little Ponies?’ Or, ‘Oh, my best friend from second grade! I forgot about her!’ Or, ‘Hey, how nice was it when I had a flat belly and wore midriff tops all the time?’ (though, I do reminisce about that particular time more than is probably strictly good for me).
No, I’m talking about powerful, space-time continuum kind of moments where it seems like all the years of your life are collapsing in on themselves and you’re experiencing a place in the past, present and the future all at once; as if you’re seeing that place for the first time and the last time whilst standing somewhere in the middle.
There’s joy, of course, at going back to a place you haven’t seen in years. There’s joy in rediscovering somewhere that once meant so much to you, where you have so many happy memories. The scariest thing, though, is how easily you regress to that previous self, how quickly and completely you’re transported back. All your old hopes and dreams flood over you, intoxicating and enticing in a way that they haven’t been in years. You see your life as your past 12 year old self (or 18 year old self, or 21 year old self, or 26 year old self…) would see it and things that you’ve steadily grown accustomed to suddenly seem like the greatest injustices, the saddest failures, the bitterest disappointments. Needless to say, it’s an overwhelming experience, one liable to leave you on the verge of tears and/or giddy hysterics and/or headspins and/or nausea.
The first time I experienced this powerful nostalgia was in Ann Arbor, Michigan last June. I hadn’t been there since 1996 – a good 16 years ago, for those of you with slow maths skills (or ‘can’t-be-arsed-maths-skills). Walking into the same house where I had spent 4 weeks when I was 12, I was overwhelmed by the fact that the place still smelt exactly as it had 16 years ago (my friends thought this sounded a little insulting, but that was not at all my meaning!) A distinctive wood-y kind of naturalistic smell: not one that you buy in an incense stick or aerosol can. The whole place was crazily, gut-wrenchingly familiar. It was a place that I thought about all the time, re-mapping it in my memories over and over again.
Sometime last year I went to visit a friend in Kensal Rise (North London). As the bus took turn after turn, I realised with a sudden jolt that I knew exactly where I was. The first time I had visited London in 2005, I had forced my then-boyfriend to stay at a hostel way out in the sticks, because it was the only place I could find that had rooms for under 10 pounds (I also forced him to agree to dorm rooms instead of a private double, for the exact same reason – he was an awfully obliging and ‘money-anxiety’-understanding boyfriend). On a non-descript road next to a large cemetery, the location certainly wasn’t the picture-postcard London that I had been dreaming about for a good 12 years. However, it didn’t bother me. I was loving myself sick just for finally having reached London, I would have happily slept in one of those smelling-of-piss red telephone boxes, as long as I could stay in the city. However, in the years following this trip, I had forgotten the name of the tube station the hostel was located near. Resigning myself to the fact that this particular corner of London was now lost to me forever, I never attempted to find it again. And, yet, here I was, heading towards it on a cold, wintery night on a red double decker bus just like one of those nights back in 2005 (I had also forced said boyfriend to travel by bus the entire time we were in London – I said it was because I liked the buses more and you could see everything that was going by, but I’m sure he knew the real reason was another attempt to save money by avoiding the oh-so-expensive tube). The sudden recognition of Kensal Rise and the hostel spun me out and distracted me all night. I tried to make fun of myself, made jokes about being in some sort of movie montage, but at the same time, I genuinely felt disconcerted, genuinely felt lost and overwhelmed.
And then, last weekend, I went to a friend’s birthday party in oh-so-trendy East London. The friend was from uni and I hadn’t seen her in at least 6 years, which was going to be strange enough. Until she showed me the back of her house, which happened to open out on to the Regent’s Canal. Staring at the street art across the canal (the ‘carrot of judgement’ as she and her housemates had dubbed it) I had another sudden thunderbolt moment. I had been there before. I had walked past her house, a year and a half ago, on one intense weekend visit to London (whilst I was still living in Ireland). I had gone on some insane November afternoon walk down the canal, thinking I was walking towards the city (and I only realised this week that I was actually walking the opposite direction), ended up two hours from the apartment of the friend I was staying, completely exhausted and no idea where I was. And, at some point, I had passed the carrot of judgement. I told my uni friend, who was mildly interested (and that’s putting it mildly).
I mean, really, what was she going to say? How could I possibly explain what was going through my head that day when I had passed her (not-yet) house a year and a half ago? I could I explain what it meant to suddenly find myself back there and be so forcibly and unexpectedly reminded of that afternoon again?
Nostalgia is a funny old thing. A place that, for you, is special and unique, turns out to be completely everyday for someone else. It’s like drunk when everyone else at the party is sipping water. You’re standing somewhere, having a mind-numbing, out-of-body experience high on nostalgia, whilst the person next to you is going about their daily business. It’s a confusing, isolating feeling and I can only assume that it gets worse as you get older (which explains a lot of highly-emotional looks Dad would shoot me over the years, when I, you know, graduated from high school, or wore one of Mum’s dress or something…)